The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘the Committee’) expressed its concerns on the issue of privatisation of education in Pakistan as the state underwent its first ever review earlier this month. The review focused on the status of implementation of the rights guaranteed under the 14 substantive articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, ‘the Covenant’).
In relation to the right to education, guaranteed under Articles 13 and 14 of the Covenant, the Committee expressed its reservations over the state’s policy of privatising education through its support for low-fee private schools. The Committee also noted that: ‘the absence of proper assessments of the impact of the public-private partnership initiatives on the right to education prior to their adoption as well as of their effectiveness in realising the right to education since their adoption’ was concerning.
Further, the Committee raised concerns over the lack of regulation of these schools which has resulted in declining standards in quality. The Committee also expressed unease that such schools could contribute to segregation in a society where only ‘high income families send their children to high quality private schools, while low income families have to send their children to underfunded public primary schools’, or to the country’s Basic Education Community Schools, a growing number of which are delivered through public-private partnerships (PPPs) and which are, ‘not properly monitored by the State party’.
In view of these worrying observations, the Committee asked the State of Pakistan’s delegation, represented by the Minister of Human Rights, Senator Kamran Michael and the Minister of State for Law and Justice, Barrister Zafrullah Khan to ‘carry out an assessment of the impact of public-private partnership initiatives based on a human rights perspective and the effectiveness of low-fee private schools in meeting the State party’s obligation under the Covenant’.
The Committee also recommended improving the quality of these (private and PPP) schools and ‘make sure that no child drops out of school for being unable to pay the non-fee expenses’.
Further, the Committee recommended that Pakistan not only prioritise increasing the level of public funding for education, but also address the underspending of the existing education budget in certain provinces.
These concluding observations and recommendations were made subsequent to the review of the state by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which expressed similar apprehension over the level of privatisation in the country. Nonetheless, privatisation by way of public-private partnerships and support for education entrepreneurs has continued in the country, notably in Punjab where the number of partner schools jumped from 3967 to 6148 in 2015 and continues to rise.
Ms. Zehra Arshad, National Coordinator of the Pakistan Coalition for Education shared her views on the CESCR concluding observations: ‘Given the status of education in the country where almost 21 million children are still out of school, the rapid privatisation of education without a thought on how this development will impact the rights of children to a quality education holds an alarming significance, as echoed by the UN committees. I am hopeful that the state will give considerations to these recommendations on a priority basis.’
Since Pakistan’s last review by the CRC, the country has made some progress towards implementing two of the recommendations made to it by Pakistan Coalition for Education (PCE). However, these have not been implemented very effectively.
Civil society organisations, including PCE, have for some time now been calling for Pakistan’s education budget to be increased. This finally happened this year, for example in Punjab where the overall development budget has increased. However, the non-salaried budget, which is important for the upkeep of schools, and expansion of access to education, has been reduced by some 11 billion rupees (approximately £132 million). In fact, the share of total provincial budgets spent on education has declined in all provinces over the past few years. Further, the share of primary education, which is mandatory under Article 13 of CESCR, has been slashed in Sindh and Punjab, which are the most populous of Pakistan’s provinces. Similarly, in Balochistan, the development budgets for education and the non-salaried budgets have been reduced significantly in the current financial year.
In 2014-2015, all provinces reported underuse of the allocated budget, with Sindh having, at 21%, the largest percentage underspend in their education budget, followed by Punjab at 18%. In addition to this, most of the budget was spent on recurrent expenses, such as salaries, with some 91% of the outlay in Sindh going on salaries and allowances, whereas Punjab spent around 85%. This leaves little room for actual expansion of access to or quality of education through the non-salary budget.
Perhaps the most notable of the issues we raised was the absence of RTE legislation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Earlier this year KP approved a draft bill to be passed by the legislature in the near future.
KP moving towards adhering to the RTE bill is a positive step in the direction of ensuring the right to free and quality public education for all in Pakistan. However, the debate around privatisation still remains a divisive one. Pakistan Coalition for Education, along with its development partners, continues to call for stronger regulation of private education actors, based on our research on existing provincial PPP frameworks. In this regard, an alternate civil society report to the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of Pakistan has been submitted for review later this year. Nationally, public awareness forums on financing and privatisation of education are also planned (having already held forums in Islamabad and Karachi) along with meetings with the National Commission of Human Rights.
PCE invites you to get in contact if you would like to be involved in any of our efforts.
Nida Mushtaq is a research coordinator with the Pakistan Coalition for Education. She tweets at @nedo9011.